With increased attention on environmental, climate and energy justice issues – the Africa Climate Summit kicks-off in a few days and it is mere weeks to COP28. The efforts of the women fighting for environmental, energy and climate justice must be celebrated, and more proactive action should be encouraged.
Whether it is stopping a multi-trillion rand nuclear deal, litigating on behalf of farmers and mine workers or working at grassroots for women and indigenous group empowerment, the work of women in eco-justice never stops.
The women behind these monumental achievements are everyday people, you could pass them by on the street or at the mall and never even know that you are passing greatness until you speak to them.
Dynamic and resilient women leaders like Nonhle Mbuthuma of Amadiba Crisis Committee, who led her community’s successful opposition of Shell’s seismic surveys on the Wild Coast and Melissa Groenink of Natural Justice, whose legal expertise has helped protect the rights of marginalised communities.
Then there is Wendy Pekeur of Ubuntu Rural Women’s Assembly, who works tirelessly to educate and amplify the myriad of issues facing rural women in South Africa, and Liz McDaid from The Green Connection, who is committed to protecting our oceans and the livelihoods of the thousands of indigenous small-scale fishers around the country.
These women work together and have found value in collaborating with other eco-justice organisations such as the Southern African Faith Communities’ Institute (SAFCEI) and Earthlife Africa, led by Francesca de Gasparis and Makoma Lekalakala, respectively. Their collective message to women is to forge ahead with bravery and unity.
Groenink says “We are stronger together, and collaboration is key.”
The Green Connection’s Liz McDaid says, “It is important to celebrate the achievements of women in eco-justice as a way to encourage other everyday she-roes to take a stand for what they believe in and stay focused on the end goal, which is to ensure that we leave a healthier planet for future generations.”
Pillars of the earth
Nonhle Mbuthuma is a Human Rights Defender and Founder of the Amadiba Crisis Committee. She fights for land and equal rights in rural Eastern Cape and opposes destructive mining projects. Giving an analogy of the connectivity between the land and everything that exists she says “people will tell you that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, but how can there be a kitchen when there is no land? You need the land first and it must be in good condition. A woman cannot nurture anything without a good basis and that basis is land.”
It is no surprise that one of her projects is overseeing economic development in farming and food security. Despite surviving an assassination attempt and several death threats since mobilising the Amadiba coastal community against an open-cast mine which was planned for the area in 2015, this warrior woman says women are the pillars of the earth and she will not be moved.
Standing with communities
When Melissa Groenink completed her Master of Laws coursework in land use and planning, she had her sights clearly set on environmental law. This has led her to work closely with communities, defending their rights from corporations seeking to exploit their natural environments.
Using her legal acumen as her voice, Groenink was involved in the court cases against Shell and Searcher Seismic surveys, with a victorious judgement for the latter in September 2022. She believes that communities must defend and protect their right to stand against environmental exploitation.
“Communities are on the forefront of the climate struggle and their voices should be the loudest. We stand with communities,” says Groenink.
Makoma Lekalakala (top photo) is a veteran grassroots activist, the Director of Earthlife Africa and a dual recipient of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa. She was directly involved in the court case which stopped government’s R1-trillion nuclear deal with Russia in 2017, a deal which would have bankrupted the country.
In addition to the costs, a core issue was that the deal was made without any public consultation, bypassing a number of steps required to legitimise the process. Lekalakala is a former liberation fighter and a strong campaigner for a just and fair society. Causes close to her heart include food security and inclusion.
“This is why we formed the Women, Energy and Climate Change Forum (WECCF) and Grassroots 4 Climate Action. It became clear that not a lot of women, especially women in poor areas, are conversant about energy issues, yet they are the people most impacted as the energy managers in their homes. South Africa’s youth should also be engaged in more tangible ways. Therefore, since knowledge is power, Earthlife Africa is on a mission to keep our grassroots communities informed about environmental, energy and climate justice issues. We must ensure that all in our society feel part of the decisions that affect them and their future wellbeing,” says Lekalakala.
Finding your voice
Liz McDaid is an energy expert, a qualified scientist, an activist and the Strategic Lead for The Green Connection. Co-recipient of the 2018 Goldman Environment Prize for Africa, McDaid’s passion project is the work she does with small-scale fisher communities, empowering them to increase their understanding of the marine ecological systems and ensure sustainable fishing, in addition to ensuring that these communities know their rights and are equipped to protect it, when necessary.
Together with Makoma Lekalakala, McDaid was instrumental in the court victory, which stopped the R1-trillion nuclear deal. She also supported the case against Shell’s seismic surveys and also joined small-scale fishers from the West Coast in their legal challenge against Searcher.
Speaking about finding her voice and becoming an activist she says “I used to keep quiet and not express what I was thinking and then someone else will say what I was thinking and then others will think what a good idea. This is where I learned to speak out and say what I was thinking because it is worth saying. You must find the courage and stand up for what you believe in. Focus on the future that you want so that you don’t get distracted along the way and consistently work toward achieving your goals.”
Agents of change
Wendy Pekeur is an environmental and gender activist who advocates for women in mining and farming. She mobilises women in rural communities across the country and educates them about what was going on around them and how they can bring about change.
Elaborating on some of the work that she does Pekeur says, “We went to the West Coast where there is an onslaught of applications to mine in the oceans. However, our oceans are central to the livelihoods of South Africa’s many fishing communities and play a very vital role in terms of providing food security to millions of people. The ocean also plays a critical role in mitigating the effects of climate change, as it helps to absorb much of the heat from global warming. Moreover, the oceans have also been a critical part of the heritage and identity of many indigenous fishing communities, for many generations.”
According to Pekeur, women should be agents of change in their communities. As such, she firmly believes that women must take ownership to ensure their communities are aware of what their rights are and should encourage their communities to demand that these rights are observed and respected.
Consultation and inclusion is key
As Executive Director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Institute (SAFCEI), Francesca de Gasparis has a specific focus on advocacy, policy and climate change strategies and making a clear link between these and people’s faith. She works with faith communities to raise awareness about links between faith and climate issues, which includes keeping government policies in check with climate responsibilities. She asserts that it is important for government to consult communities on issues of nuclear energy.
“We continue to request government to engage and consult the public, for whom this energy is meant, and to be transparent and share its plans, as is required in our Constitution and relevant legislation. It is important to make sure we have access to all the information needed to make informed and meaningful representations.”
De Gasparis says the fight to promote energy justice is ongoing because of the high levels of secrecy and lack of information shared with civil society about energy issues.
These are just some of the female powerhouses in South Africa’s dynamic and increasingly diverse eco-justice movement. The women have chosen to be agents of change in their respective locations operating under a common belief, that there is strength in unity and everybody’s voice counts. They have put the old saying ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ into action and the whole country not only gets to benefit from their effort and conviction but also draw inspiration from them.